Chapter 10: Interference
The ride to Shalen remained quiet. Not because neither of them wanted to continue the conversation he started in Lena’s dorm, which he didn’t at that moment, but authority even rigged the shuttles with listening devices. Only personal dorms were free from prying ears, the one law elders gave in favor of Synod members.
Tarek landed close to Nan’s tree, killing the engine. Here they were, ready to take the biggest risk in their history together. As her Protector, he was failing. Lena deserved someone stronger—someone who didn’t love her as thoroughly as he did.
An issue he couldn’t solve. Loving her was as natural and necessary to him as his heart beating.
Without a word, he got out and headed toward Nan’s tree, Lena right behind him. Once they sat, he again broke their no-touching rule and brushed her cheek with a fingertip, memorizing her as he always memorized her, taking mental snapshots of each moment. “Are you sure about this?”
She turned into his hand before he could pull away, surprising him. “No.”
“Then why do it? We can wait, try to get an assignment there, talk to Teenesee without any fear of repercussions.”
Tears slipped down her cheeks and wet his palm, killing him. “I’m so tired, Tarek. Tired of being this thing who steals life. Thinking about the lives that I’m going to live here, working for them as a monster, it makes me sick. I just… I don’t want to lose me.” Her hand came up to cover her heart. “But I’ll do it, live here life after life, as long as you do because…I don’t ever want to live without you, even at the danger of losing myself.”
His heart stopped. She had never… Not since that night, so many years ago. He knew they both felt the same, an unspoken pledge to each other. But she had never said it.
Now, more than ever, he wanted take her from this world. Hide her. But he couldn’t, an impossibility due to their Exemplian “privilege.” So he gave her the only promise he could keep, a promise not even Exemplar could steal from them. “Wherever you are is where I’ll be. In this world or another, I’ll always find you.”
Tears shimmered brighter in her eyes, and she snuggled to his side. “You know you can’t.”
He wrapped his arms around her, wishing his faith could absorb into her skin. “I can, and I will, Lena. You will never have to be without me. I won’t let them take that.”
Silence filled the air, except for her quiet sobs. What to say? How to make her believe? Maybe he needed to stop this now, stop the emotion before they couldn’t go back to their normal, to the secrets Exemplar forced them to keep.
But then she gave him everything.
“I love you, Tarek. I wish I had told you that every day. I wish so many other things.” Her confession was a whisper, but powerful enough break his heart and mend it at the same time.
Why did this moment have to be the first time she said those words? Yet, he’d take what she gave and lock her words away, refuse to give them back.
He leaned over and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. “And with every breath in my body, I love you. I will always love you, no matter how many lives we live.” He told her with his lips touching her skin, as he always wanted to tell her.
Her body quivered under his touch. “So, what do we do now? How do we…?” She pulled back and met his gaze. “How, Tarek?”
Hope sprouted in his chest. “We just do it, love.” This, exactly this, was all he had ever needed from her. He wanted to yell toward the star-lit sky, thank whatever it was that made her change her mind.
But then he looked at her, really looked at her.
Her smile fell, as if reality barged into her mind. “Wait. I…Wait. I don’t thi—”
“No, Lena. No. Trust me.” He covered her balled fists, massaging her fingers until they relaxed.
“I do trust you.”
“Then don’t say what you were going to say.”
Worry still stained her face, but she nodded.
He said nothing else for a moment, afraid to break the connection. Afraid to give her a reason that would change her mind. But he had to make one thing clear.
He pushed to his feet, lifting her with him. “Let’s go.” He hesitated. “But this will be the only time, Lena. I won’t put you in danger again to clear your conscience. I want to love you, without any threat outside of keeping it from the elders.”
She tilted her head to meet his gaze. “I want that, too. I…need it.”
Tarek smiled. “Good.”
Her hand came up to his cheek, drawing small, fiery circles on his skin. “Your dimples… I dream about them. I dream about you.”
Love. The word was too small, not colorful enough. He pressed a lingering kiss against her lips, a chaste touch, reverent. If he had it his way, they’d spend the night under different circumstances. But her morals wouldn’t allow either of them to forget.
“Starting tomorrow, I’m going to build you that cottage,” he said. “With a fireplace made of your stones, right here, away from everyone.”
She scrunched her brow. “But, how can we do that? Live together? Not to mention buy this land?”
“I have three hundred years of funds I’ve never spent.” He shrugged, his mind made up. “And Protectors live with their Guides all the time.”
“Not up here, they don’t.”
“Well, we’ll just have to change the status quo, won’t we?” He smoothed a thumb across her cheek, her velvet skin causing his to spark. “Ready?”
She inhaled, and exhaled slowly. “Wherever you are, right?”
Yes, they’d have to be careful, and yes, they were about to blow the cap off some shady Exemplian activity. In reality, they’d always have to look over their shoulders now—a small price to pay to be able to love her. Finally.
He should’ve known better.
“What’s wrong?” Lena looked up at his outreached hand.
He didn’t answer, sweat now pouring from his skin. Even as he tried to force the tear open, he knew the struggle was futile. Someone blocked him. Someone a hell of a lot stronger than he was.
“Tarek?” Lena’s fingers curled into his shirt, the hum of his suit underneath adding to his panic.
He lowered his hand, shoved her behind his back, and pulled his taser from his holster. “Someone’s blocking me.” As the words left his mouth, an authority shuttle hovered close to the ground before landing silently beside his.
“Oh, no.” Lena clutched his sides, her fingers digging into his skin. “Oh, no, oh, no.”
Tarek held his taser, waiting. He couldn’t reassure her, tell her everything would be fine. No one had ever bothered them up here. Not once.
Somehow, some way, authority knew everything. And now they’d pay for it.
The shuttle door opened, and he almost lifted Lena over his shoulder and took off running. It would’ve been pointless, though.
No one got away from Winston.
“What’s going on here, big man?” Winston sauntered over, calm and completely deadly. “You planning a trip?”
Tarek backed up, one arm behind him grasping Lena, whose shaking body vibrated against his back. “Obviously you know, don’t you, sir?”
The tattoos peeking from the collar of Winston’s suit stood out on his dark skin, evidence he’d spent some time in Heterodox. He nodded, crossing his arms, no weapon in his hands. He didn’t need one. “You got to be careful where you talk about things.”
What? They were careful. The only place he and Lena discussed anything was in Shalen and in their dorms—Oh, no. “They tapped our rooms.”
“Cassondra tapped your rooms. She has a knack for that covert shit. Believe me.” Winston tilted his head and looked behind Tarek. “Come on out, Lena. I ain’t going to hurt you.”
When Lena moved, Tarek stopped her. No. He didn’t trust anyone, especially the authority captain.
Winston smirked. “Cute. But you holding her behind your back wouldn’t do anything if I were in a different mood.”
Still, she stayed behind him as he said, “If you have no plans to arrest us, then why are you here?”
“Because I like you. And you’re lucky Cassondra likes me. Woman confides in me more than I care to admit.”
Tarek spared a quick glance behind him at Lena, knowing what Winston’s revelation would mean to her. Excitement lit her eyes. Yes, exactly. Of course he knew her. The authority captain just made it onto Lena’s list of people for future interrogation. He faced Winston again, grateful that for whatever reason in the past, he made a decent impression on the guy. “Thank you, sir.” What else could he say?
Winston unfurled his arms and gestured to the sky. “Don’t thank me yet. After I unblock you, and you still decide to take off for Empyrean?” He waved his hand, and instantly Tarek felt the lines open up to him again. “When I come after you there, I won’t be so friendly.”
The wind was still and the birds quiet, as if understanding the severity of the situation. Apples and lilacs that usually comforted him turned his stomach inside out, the odor too sweet, to innocent.
This was it, then. Nothing else they could do.
Lena pushed on Tarek’s back until he let her by his side. “It’s illegal to tap our rooms.”
Winston laughed. “So is snooping around in the archives rooms. What’s good for you, gotta be good for her.”
Lena stood closer to Tarek’s side, her body a delicate flower in a windstorm. “I didn’t—”
“You did, and she knows. And the only reason she hasn’t had authority snatch you up is because her curiosity led to illegal activity of her own. Last thing she wants is to go to the elders with info she got from personal chambers.”
“Well, I’m willing to deal with them.” Lena stood taller, moving away from Tarek, making his nerves jump. Winston might be an impossible foe, but he could be the front line if the captain decided to get pissed, giving Lena a slim chance to get away. “My infraction is mild compared to hers. No Exemplian willing to sacrifice their life to the cause shou—”
“Save it, Guide.” Winston raised a brow. “Whatever you found, she don’t like it. Don’t care what you know, either, but it bought you her personal attention, and that ain’t good.”
Lena’s face paled, and she said nothing. She only shared her secrets with Tarek.
Winston leaned back on his heels, his tone carrying nothing but calm truth. “So again, since I like your Protector, I decided to cut you a break, warn you to knock your shit off.”
“Why?” Lena stepped forward. “It can’t only be because Tarek’s a good guy. You risked a lot coming here for a simple ‘like.'”
Winston was silent for a moment, staring holes into Lena’s unflinching face. When she dug for information, she forgot everything else, including potential danger. Then he said, “You ain’t the only one who knows the truth about things. And you ain’t the only one who hates it.”
Yes, the man definitely made her list.
But now he also piqued Tarek’s interest. Kendal’s depressed visage slid into his mind—and so did her new habit of spending time with Winston. “People like who?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Winston’s eyes hardened. “I’m telling you this as a favor.” He pointed at Tarek, some of his calm evaporating. “Don’t. Go. If you do, I’m coming for you.”
“But, but we were invited,” Lena said, her voice airy. “Teenesee asked me to come to her.”
“That won’t go over well with anyone; the treaty has no bend in it.” Winston turned, heading back to his shuttle. “She knows what you’re planning, and she’s already got my platoon waiting for that moment you punch through Empyrean’s line. Satellites are pointed and ready, shooting every angle of Teenesee’s keep. Don’t go.”
Lena ran after Winston, her desperation causing her to stumble in the tall grass. “Wait, please! What truth do you know? What? You can’t just leave!”
But he did, without even a backward glance.
She spun to him as Winston’s shuttle jetted into the night. “What now? What do we do?”
Tarek holstered his taser with an unsteady hand. “Nothing. We do nothing. It’s over.” All of it was over. This fucking place would never let them live. Ever. Cassondra heard everything. Everything.
“No, it can’t be over. There has to be another way.” She hurried to him, bunching his shirt in her fists. “We can’t let her win.”
“It’s not about winning,” he whispered, untwining her fingers from his shirt. “All it’s ever been about is surviving. Something we forgot.” He dragged his body to their shuttle, trying to keep the fury inside, keep it from exploding.
“I won’t accept it. I won’t.”
He lifted the doors then turned to her. “Get in, Lena.”
She glared at him, her face so white it reflected the moon. “There are other people, more information to know. Winston said so. Maybe we can find out who, and—”
He held up his hand, done with this. Done with all of it. Her death flashed in his mind, a waking nightmare—and the fuel he needed to ensure it didn’t happen. She wouldn’t persuade him of anything, not anymore. The only worry he had now was protecting Lena from Cassondra’s wrath. “Whoever he’s talking about is as chained to this place as we are. Don’t you see that?”
She shook her head. “Maybe not.”
He lunged for her, sweeping her up and carrying her to the shuttle, dumping her into the passenger seat.
“Hey!” Lena pounded on her door to no avail. He had it locked and secured.
When he jumped in, he said, “You want to know who he’s talking about? Kendal. Trust me. And that woman hasn’t been okay since her rebirth.” He smacked the steering lever with a yell. “We’re finished! No more. This has to stop now.”
She swallowed, her throat bobbing as fat tears dripped from her eyes. Defeat drained her face even more. She understood. Kendal didn’t have enough sanity left to help anyone. “Are you certain it’s her?”
He lifted the shuttle into the sky. “No, but that’s one thing we can find out.” Tarek steered toward home. “Stop talking. Her ears are everywhere.”
Hours later, he paced his dorm, Lena mute on his bed, afraid to go to her own room, afraid to speak in his. In the silence, his comp system dinged. “You’ve a new message, Protector Tarek Montigue, from Dimension Development.”
Tarek stopped in front of his machine, glanced at Lena, and then read the screen.
Assignment Update: Collect weak energy from Andor. Distribute to Arcus. Leave at dawn.